January 19, 1921 – Patricia Highsmith:
“The only difference between us and heterosexuals is what we do in bed.”
Patricia Highsmith is much on my mind these days, after recently re-watching Carol (2015), the film adaptation of her romantic lesbian novel The Price Of Salt (1952), published under the pseudonym “Claire Morgan”. Carol is directed by my neighbor, Todd Haynes, whose films, for me, never disappoint.
After humble beginnings in Texas, Highsmith traveled to Europe in 1949 and basically never left, moving between England, France, Switzerland and Italy. This nomadic lifestyle seemed to become the inspiration for her “Tom Ripley” stories.
“I’m going to enjoy what I’ve got as long as it lasts.”Tom Ripley
The first book published, The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955), is about a gay, debonair, psychotic, habitual liar, who cheats and murders his way around Europe, adopting various identities and playing different personalities in order to elude authorities. My kind of guy.
There would be four more: Ripley Underground (1970), Mr. Ripley’s Game (1974), The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980), and Ripley Underwater (1990).
Highsmith produced 22 novels and seven collections of short stories by the time she checked-out.
Highly filmable, most of her novels have been adapted into successful films including Alfred Hitchcock‘s Strangers On A Train (1951).
The Talented Mr. Ripley was adapted to film as Plein Soleil (1960), starring Alain Delon, whom Highsmith thought was perfect for the role, and again in 1999 with Matt Damon. Mr. Ripley’s Game also became a film twice: The American Friend (1977) with Dennis Hopper as career criminal Tom Ripley, and again in 2002, as Ripley’s Game with John Malkovich in the title role. They are all excellent.
Highsmith was known to be mean spirited, misanthropic, cruel, racist and misogynistic. Those who knew her claim she was shy and unhappy in life. She was a lesbian with many lovers; none of these relationships lasted more than a few years.
Her uncomfortable novels of humiliation, delusion and futility move between serious literature, pulp fiction, comic books (which Highsmith actually wrote for at one point) and psychiatric clinical case studies. Highsmith’s intimate life and literary life both began with an early success and had a slow painful decline. Her books are filled with themes of hostility, guilt, anxiety and resentment, with situations and emotions most of us would rather not admit we are familiar with.
Highsmith preferred women for sex, although she preferred men in all other ways. In 1949, she made an effort to analyze and “cure” herself by taking a fiancé. Her biographies name more than a dozen affairs with women. As it turned out, her private life was a sexual grand tour of Europe.
She occasionally engaged in sex with men without physical desire for them, and wrote in her diary:
“The male face doesn’t attract me, isn’t beautiful to me. I tried to like men. I like most men better than I like women, but not in bed.”
In a 1970 letter, Highsmith described sexual encounters with men as:
“…steel wool in the face, a sensation of being raped in the wrong place—leading to a sensation of having to have, pretty soon, a bowel movement. If these words are unpleasant to read, I can assure you it is a little more unpleasant in bed.”
Highsmith was a lesbian who did not very much enjoy being around other women and the few sexual dalliances she had with men occurred just to see if she could be into men in that way because she so much more preferred their company.
In 1943, Highsmith had an affair with artist Allela Cornell who, despondent over the unrequited love from another woman, committed suicide in 1946 by drinking nitric acid.
Highsmith met writer Marc Brandel, and even though she told him about her queerness, they still had a short affair. She visited him in Provincetown, where he introduced her to Ann Smith, a painter, designer and Vogue fashion model, and the two became involved. After Provincetown, Highsmith felt she was “in prison” with Brandel and told him she was leaving. “…because of that I have to sleep with him, and only the fact that it is the last night strengthens me to bear it.”
After ending her thing with Brandel, she had an affair with psychoanalyst Kathryn Hamill Cohen, the wife of publisher Dennis Cohen and founder of Cresset Press, which published Strangers On A Train.
To help pay for the twice-a-week therapy sessions, Highsmith had taken a sales job during Christmas rush season in the toy section of Bloomingdale’s department store. Ironically, it was during this attempt to “cure” her gayness that Highsmith was inspired to write The Price Of Salt.
In 1951, she had an affair with sociologist Ellen Blumenthal Hill. Then Highsmith began an affair with the gay German photographer Rolf Tietgens. She was attracted to Tietgens because he was gay, confiding that she felt with him “as if he is another girl, or a singularly innocent man”. She dedicated The Two Faces Of January (1964) to Tietgens.
Between 1959 and 1961, Highsmith was in love with writer Marijane Meaker. Meaker wrote lesbian stories under the pseudonym “Ann Aldrich” and mystery/suspense fiction as “Vin Packer,” and young adult fiction as “M.E. Kerr.” In the late 1980s, after 27 years apart, Highsmith began corresponding with Meaker again, and one day showed up on Meaker’s doorstep, drunk and ranting bitterly.
Highsmith was attracted to women of privilege. She belonged to a very particular subset of lesbians and described her conduct with many women she was interested in as being comparable to a movie “studio boss” who chased starlets.
An intensely private person, Highsmith was remarkably open and outspoken about her sexuality. She told Meaker:
“…the only difference between us and heterosexuals is what we do in bed.”
In her last years, Highsmith moved to unrequited crushes on film stars including Tabea Blumenschein, a young actor in German films, with whom Highsmith was obsessed after they enjoyed a brief fling in 1978.
In the last 30 years of her life, she ate little, but drank epic amounts of Scotch. She was so stingy with her money that she lugged a pile of firewood from home to home and would drive more than an hour to buy cheaper pasta. Highsmith died in 1995, taken by lung cancer at 74 years old.
New this winter: Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries And Notebooks: 1941-1995.
Deep Water (2022), directed by Adrian Lyne, is based on the novel of the same name by Highsmith. The film stars Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas, and Tracy Letts, and marks Lyne’s return to filmmaking after an 20-year absence; his last film was Unfaithful (2002). It will start streaming on Hulu later this month.
Until then there is: Ripley Under Ground (2005), directed by Roger Spottiswoode stars Barry Pepper as Ripley and features Willem Dafoe and Alan Cumming; The Two Faces Of January (2014), written and directed by Hossein Amini, stars Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst and Oscar Isaac; The Cry Of The Owl (2009), based on Highsmith’s book of the same name, stars Paddy Considine and Julia Stiles; A Kind Of Murder (2016), based upon the Highsmith novel The Blunderer (1954). It stars Patrick Wilson and Jessica Biel.
If you are feeling dark, confused and put upon, I recommend the “Ripley” novels. Read them in order, starting the next one as the previous book is closed. They may have you getting in touch with your inner Tom Ripley, which could be just what you needed.